Sunday, March 27, 2011

Missing out...

This past week I have felt terrible. Due to the gorgeous springtime weather, my allergies kicked into high gear and had me wheezing like...well...a person with asthma triggered by severe allergies. The only way to avoid an expensive trip to the emergency room that my finances couldn't possibly withstand, I had to take it easy the past few days, stay inside to avoid pollen and other irritants, and basically sit on my butt and relax. You see, my dad taught me that you can beat any asthma attack by simply remaining calm. The more worked up you got, the more stressed out you became about breathing through a pinhole, only made the attack worse.

Anyhow, this state of extreme mellowness I had to maintain also meant that I was missing out on all kinds of events that were happening this weekend...big time.

I could have been "porking out" in City Park at Hogs for the Cause, eating my way through a forest of culinary bliss at Taste of the Town in Lafreniere Park, screaming my lungs out at the Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square for the Tennessee Williams Festival or tasting from the annual Roadfood Festival booths lining Royal Street. Probably worst of all, I missed out on an epic crawfish boil that took place at Casey & Brandon's house on the Westbank. They're quite possibly the coolest couple on earth and the first people I met in New Orleans who introduced me to wonders of a fantastic crawfish boil.

Sad and mopey, I confined myself to the bedroom and read most of the time. On Saturday, my sweet, sweet man not only bought me a dozen sunset colored roses, he also acquired a big, fat bag of boiled crawfish and fixin's from Big Fisherman on Magazine Street.

As we sucked the heads and pinched the tails, I couldn't help smiling at John and tapping my foot to the Bob Marley station we set on Pandora. Just being with the love of my life and enjoying a great meal I realized, perhaps I hadn't missed out on all that much...after all, there's always next weekend!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Taking a ride on "A Streetcar Named Delicious"

While reading the recipes in A Streetcar Named Delicious by Todd-Michael St. Pierre, I couldn't help but sense the author's whimsical, childlike nature from the titles of his recipes to the interspersed poetry about New Orleans. I suppose it makes sense considering that St. Pierre also writes children's books, but it made delving into this particular cookbook much more fun than I originally imagined.

I was scanning through, seeking to try out a couple of dishes for myself, and I couldn't help but smile at recipes for "Found My Thrill Char-Grilled Oysters", "Mon Mere's 7th Ward Gumbo", "Port of New Orleans Shrimp Apollo" and "Abundantly Blessed Spaghetti." Though the author himself calls his style "campy", I just think it's a warm, sincere and innocent way to reflect his love for New Orleans, something I can relate to wholeheartedly.

Whether the origins of these recipes came from Todd-Michael St. Pierre's family, friends or acquaintances, they all have the feel of tried-and-true, home-tested and approved classics from your Maw-Maw's kitchen. Some of the recipes actually seemed to be contributed by random, neighborhood folk like the "No-Hassle Pimm's Cup" offered by "a little old lady on Annunciation Street" or (my favorite) "Comus Caramelized Tomatoes" from "a bag lady who resembles Vivian Leigh!"

After much deliberation, I settled on two different recipes. One, "Tante Zizi's Jambalaya Pasta", was recommended to me by the author and the other, "Purgatory Pie", just sounded too scrumptious to pass up.

"Tante Zizi's Jambalaya Pasta" is wonderfully simple recipe that takes the basic necessities from any good jambalaya recipe -- chicken, tasso or smoked sausage and green bell pepper -- and brings them together in tasty harmony over multi-colored pasta. Two eye-opening ingredients that I never expected to see were the garnishes, grated provolone and gouda cheese. Though unexpected, the heavy-flavored cheeses added a different dimension to the pasta and worked perfectly. It made a large pot of pasta that John gobbled up greedily for lunch and dinner the following day!

There were several desserts I wanted to try, not least of all the "Dreamy Chocolate Doberge Cake" (I pity the soul that's not tasted a decadent Doberge), but since I didn't have the tools to cut the many layers, I settled for the "Purgatory Pie".  Now, this is basically a pecan pie that I had made many, many times in the past, but it included a few unique ingredients like Louisiana cane syrup (I used Steen's) and fig preserves. Let me just tell you, this is a pecan pie to end all pecan pies. Delicious!

Although I really love the book, my only complaint would have to be the lack of photographs. Not only would I love to see pictures of all this scrumptious food, laid out like it's meant to be at your mom'an'dem's table, but I would love to see pictures of the family and friends who shared these wonderful recipes with the author like Tante Zizi, Aunt Celia or even the "real nice guy on Poetry Street."

Until then, I will just have to make the recipes and find out for myself!

"I love a fresh Muffuletta,
I love Lafitte and Laveau!
Sometimes a song just says it best...
What a Wonderful World, Satchmo!"

~ by Todd-Micheal St. Pierre, from "I Love New Orleans", A Streetcar Named Delicious

Monday, March 21, 2011

Springtime celebration similarities...

With the official arrival of spring yesterday and the proliferation of St. Joseph's Day altars around town on Friday, I can't help but be reminded of home when the coming of spring meant the beginning of Persian New Year. "Nowruz" marks the beginning of spring and the first day of the new year in the Iranian calendar and has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

What I remember most about this holiday was, as a child, running to our elders and saying "Eideh shoma mobarak!" and promptly being rewarded with a brand new dollar bill (sometimes we were lucky enough to get $5 or even $10), a tradition similar to Chinese New Year.

The St. Joseph's Day altars especially triggered one Persian New Year tradition that is always observed by my aunts and cousins, the "Haftseen" or seven "S's."   A gorgeous table is laid out displaying seven different items that begin with the seen (Sā) in the Persian alphabet:

Sib - apples symbolizing beauty and health
Sabzeh - lentil sprouts growing in a dish symbolizing rebirth
Samanu - sweet pudding symbolizing affluence
Senjed - dried fruit symbolizing love
Sir - garlic symbolizing medicine
Somāq - rich orange/red sumac symbolizing the sunrise
Serkeh - vinegar symbolizing old-age and patience

I asked my cousin Raya to send me a picture of my Aunt Remelia's haftseen table this year.  As you can see, there are other items on the table aside from the traditional "seven" that also have their own meaning. For example the goldfish in the bowl represent life, the mirror symbolizes truth, the decorated egg is fertility and the candles represent enlightenment.

When I look at the Haftseen, it makes my heart ache a little. It's at times like these when I miss my family back in California and the holidays and traditions I took for granted growing up. I am also missing some of the most delicious Persian dishes that are often served in celebration of the New Year like sabsi polo (a vegetable rice made with parsley, dill and cilantro), dolmeh and kookoo sabsi (like an omelet made with spinach, onions and chives).

Happy New Year everyone or "Eideh shoma mobarak!"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cooter Brown's: A spontaneous diversion...

Since last Thursday, I had big plans about this week's cheat. Searching through my list of restaurants "to do", I had narrowed down my choices to three different contenders. All three restaurants were fairly upscale which required some personal maintenance on my part, that I was ready and willing for, especially since I was literally drooling after reading their online menus.

The day I'd been waiting for dawned warm and bright, the birds were singing, the flowers were blooming and the last thing I wanted to do was get dressed up. What can I say? "Even the best laid plans oft go astray..."  So, as it turned out, for my 78th cheat John and I went to Cooter Brown's. I lost another pound from the ones I gained a couple of weeks ago and am down to a total loss of 79 pounds.

I pulled back my unwashed hair into a pony tail, slipped on my trusty Birkenstocks and we slowly ambled the "strenuous" five blocks to the bar. After a workout like that, I needed a nice cold beer, so we placed our food order and hit the bar to choose from one of the hundreds (yep, I mean hundreds!) of brews the bar has available. I started to get dizzy while reading from their selection, so I settled for one I knew I liked, Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan. John decided to go a little lighter considering our food order and selected a Ponchartrain Pilsner.

We made our way through the darkened bar to sit in one of the semi-private booths and waited for our food while we listened to the other patrons cheer a basketball game that was playing on several wide-screened TVs. Before we could take a few sips, our number popped up in glowing red numerals on the digital counters placed strategically under the television screens, signalling that our food was ready.

Though it didn't seem like a lot when we placed the order, when I saw the amount of food sitting on the counter I thought we might have gone a bit overboard. Right away, neither of us could help digging into the large order of chili-cheese fries, using forks to plow our way through a molten layer of cheddar and jack cheese topped with a "bean-in" chili, all resting on a bed of thickly-sliced waffle fries.  They were a greasy, spicy, salty mess of carbohydrates and fat...and they were absolutely delicious.

Our other "appetizer" was two Mrs. Wheat's Fabulous Meat Pies made right here in New Orleans. Now, I don't know about "fabulous", the dough was super thin and the filling uninspiring, but they were not terrible and the brown gravy dipping sauce served alongside helped boost the overall flavor. I could easily see devouring a few of these easily after having "one too many" though, and finding them utterly delicious.

Finally, my main course was a Creole Dog, a spicy link of andouille sausage covered in chili, cheese, fresh tomatoes and green onions served on a soft, simple hot dog bun. It was perfectly tasty and needed no other condiments, not that I could fit anything else inside that bun if I had wanted to. John chose the Cooter Dog, a beef frankfurter topped with chili, cheese and sauerkraut. 

Fearing a serious case of heartburn, I thought it would be a good idea to grab a malt or shake at Camellia Grill just down the block. As we neared the white pillared restaurant, John began to whine about standing in line for an hour just to get dessert. After a few minutes of listening to him rant, I gave in and opted to get some ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery next door...and made him pay for it.

I got a large scoop of their "Coffee Lover's Only" combo of coffee ice cream, crumbled Heath bar, toasted almonds and caramel sauce served in a chocolate dipped waffle cone. As I walked out, choosing to enjoy my ice cream in the sun, I glanced over at Camellia Grill only to see that the line had completely disappeared. Though I enjoyed my treat, I had to grumble a bit at John for his impatience.  But I must admit, for a day of broken plans and grudgingly-given compromise, I had a wonderful time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Milton H. Latter Memorial Library: A bibliophile's refuge

The first month I spent in New Orleans was lonely, empty and frustrating. After spending almost four days on the road together, my sister and I had a huge fight that culminated in her earlier-than-expected departure and my subsequent depression. Yes, I had finally made it to the city of my dreams, but now I was alone (just me and my shih-tzu Pippin), nervous, a little scared, living in an empty apartment and clinging to the desperate hope that the rest of my belongings would soon arrive. The movers were scheduled to come only three days after I reached the city, but they didn't actually show until almost a month had passed.

Yep. For an entire month it was me, Pippin, my trusty air mattress, about a week's worth of clothes and dust bunnies that rolled across the hardwood floors like tumbleweeds. Though my dog and I enjoyed long walks through the Garden District and playing in Audubon Park, those outings only took up small parts of each day. Sure I went to the grocery store, meandered through the shops on Magazine Street and even dined alone at some wonderful neighborhood restaurants, yet I still became incredibly anxious to begin my new life. I mean, I had to get a job, didn't I? After only a few days I started missing my friends in California, missing my family, missing the familiarity of my old life... and I really missed my books.

You see, I love books. I love getting lost in a great story, love the feel of the pages in my hand, love the musty smell of a well-read tome. Friends keep telling me these days about the wonders of owning a Kindle and though I can see the appeal, I just can't bring myself to walk away from my beloved, burdensome, bulky, beautiful books. As geeky or lame as it may sound, books have been dear friends to me almost all of my life, from the day I could pick one up and read for myself, I have been enraptured by books. They have been there for me when "real friends" have faded away. Believe it or not, books have helped me weather some of the most difficult times in my life.

So, after a few days of wallowing in emptiness, I searched through the telephone book for the nearest library branch and it happened to be a gorgeous former mansion, the Milton H. Latter Memorial Library.

In the next several weeks, I spent a good part of every day at the library. I used the computers upstairs to check my email, re-crafted my resume and sent it out to potential employers. I browsed the library's modest collection of fiction and local authors, checked out several books that were returned in only a few short days after devouring them in the seemingly endless evening hours while rain poured from the sky during that muggy, wet June.

When the movers finally arrived, I took a break from the library to get my apartment on Harmony Street in order, but I still found time at least once a week to  return the books I had read and check out new ones. These days, I don't get to the library very often anymore, but I can't help but smile when I drive past it on St. Charles Avenue. I will never forget how that wonderful refuge got me through those first weeks in a strange, new town.

I do, however, try to make it for the weekly book sales put on by the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library that take place behind the library in the carriage house every Wednesday and Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm. In fact, just this past Saturday, I went to the book sale and purchased 17 different titles, ranging from trade paper to hard cover and all in good condition, for a grand total of $18! In fact, I am planning on returning for the 5th anniversary of the FNOPL's weekly book sale happening Saturday, March 19th and Wednesday, March 23rd when everything will be an additional 50% off!

Does anyone have a wagon I can borrow?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Deep fried joy at Freret Street Po-Boy & Donut Shop

A few days ago while surfing the net, I happened upon a fabulous photo of a fried shrimp po-boy. It looked to be a 12 inch beauty on soft Leidenheimer French bread, fully dressed with shredded lettuce, bright tomatoes and creamy mayo and stuffed so full with crispy fried shrimp that stragglers were tumbling out onto the butcher paper it was wrapped in. I thought, "When was the last time I ate a fried shrimp po-boy?"

Digging through my memories and my own photographs, I realized that I had not devoured one of my all-time favorite New Orleans sandwiches in over six months! Six months! Way too long to have gone without...

I hunted down the source of that drool-inducing picture and discovered the Freret Street Po-Boy & Donut Shop. Without breaking stride, John and I headed over to the corner of Freret and Valance for my 77th cheat. I am still standing at a loss of 78 pounds.

The brightly painted, sky-blue shop was quiet when we walked in, but filled and emptied at a steady pace with patrons picking up orders to-go during our entire stay. Though I was temped to try one of the other sandwiches (a Freret St. Special with ham, roast beef, turkey, Swiss & Creole mustard), I was there for fried shrimp. I got a 6-inch, sure it would be enough, and a side of onion rings while John chose a 1/2 and 1/2 - half fried shrimp and half fried oyster - 10-inch po-boy.

It wasn't long before our orders came out or before I regretted not ordering a 10-inch...what was I thinking? The bread was soft and fresh and the well-battered shrimp were hot, crunchy and delicious. I watched enviously as John gobbled down his sandwich.

Feeling sorry for me, he reserved a couple bites of the oyster side of his po-boy for me to taste and although it had great flavor, the oysters were stone cold! John didn't even notice, he was that hungry. We both devoured the large helping of fresh-from-the-fryer onion rings, dipping them liberally in ketchup, though I think I might have munched more than my fair share.

Finally, since it's also been a long time since I'd had a donut, likely much longer, I picked out a few for dessert. John thought I was going a bit overboard selecting three of their largest pastries -- a bowtie, apple fritter and honey bun -- but I didn't see him complaining as we scarfed down the glazed, deep fried goodness soon after we got home with a large, hot cup of Cafe Du Monde coffee. I feel so much better!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In awe of Margaret...

About a week before the madness of Mardi Gras set in, John and I took the streetcar downtown to check out used cars for sale at the Bridge House on Camp Street. We figured we could score a new vehicle and help out a worthy non-profit in one fell swoop, but unfortunately the only available choices that day were a couple of major gas guzzlers (a.k.a. Cadillacs) and a Cavalier beater with no A/C, almost 200K miles and the dirtiest interior I've ever had the pleasure to ride in.

We decided to come back at a later date when their inventory had changed and as we shambled, disheartened, back towards St. Charles, we walked through a little triangular park dubbed Margaret Place. In the center of the park's widest point between Camp and Prytania Streets sits a marble statue of a seated woman smiling down at a small, cherubic child and its only inscription the name "Margaret."  As I walked down the path away from the statue and toward Earhart Boulevard, I discovered a plaque where through murky glass I was barely able to discern that the statue was of a famous female philanthropist named Margaret Gaffney Haughery.

Completed in 1884, this statue is one of the very first in the U.S. erected in honor of a woman by sculptor Alexander Doyle.  Referred to as "Margaret of New Orleans", "The Bread-Giver" and "Angel of the Delta", Margaret Haughery was an awe-inspiring individual who rose up through obstacles like illiteracy, abject poverty and the death of her husband and only child to become a wealthy businesswoman who gave the majority of her earnings to feed, clothe and house the city's destitute. When the yellow fever epidemic raged through the city in the 1850's, Margaret cared for the sick and reassured dying mothers that their children would be looked after. You can read more about this amazing woman at among other online sources.

When I stopped to admire the statue again after reading of her staggering accomplishments and selfless acts, my own financial difficulties seemed truly insignificant and narcissistic in comparison. Do people like her even exist anymore?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Home-style cooking at Two Sisters Restaurant

A long time ago in a job far, far away, I had the most uncomfortable task of administrating a local forum. Most of the time it consisted of deleting spam, banning bots and trying to make all the participants happy (a virtually impossible task), but it also managed to be quite educational and a lot of fun at the same time.

For me, the most important bits of information were New Orleans restaurant recommendations that hailed from both locals and regular visitors like some particularly amiable folks I met on the Essence Festival board.

Long before the federal floods, a large group of friends from all over the country who attend Essence Festival every year arrange meet & greets, share information for newcomers, and chat about days gone by on that same forum. It was more than 6 years ago that one poster had praised the delicious and affordable, home-cooked soul food at Two Sisters Restaurant and I thought it was way past time for me to give it a try.

This was my 76th cheat and I lost one of the pounds I gained last week, putting me at a total loss of 78 pounds. I'm truly hoping to start making real progress again after Mardi Gras...we shall see.

After running a few errands, John and I decided to head to the restaurant with only a general idea of where it was located. We knew it was on N. Derbigny Street in the Treme, but not the exact address and since neither of us own a smart phone, we just decided to wing it. Needless to say, we drove around for a bit, turning around in a complete circle from Basin to Orleans to Esplanade and finally on to Derbigny before we spotted the large, mint green building with a sign touting Two Sisters Kitchen "for the town's best food & lowest prices."

Though we had walked in well after the lunch hour, there were still quite a few diners enjoying a late lunch. We scouted around for an available table and sat down. The dining room is filled with small, glass-topped tables under a fairly low ceiling and the wonderful aromas from the kitchen permeate the whole room. From a simple menu we made our selections, although John had to change his because they had run out. Apparently, there are a few dishes like oxtail and meatloaf that tend to sell out fast, so we made a note next time to arrive early, because there will most definitely be a next time...

Soon after we got our drinks, our server brought out a plate of cornbread muffins slathered with butter and we also each got a side dish of potato salad. A large smile spread across John's face after he took his first bite of the creamy, mustard-rich potato salad. "This tastes exactly like my mom's recipe," he said and proceeded to wolf down the whole dish before I could blink.

It wasn't long before our heavily-laden lunch plates arrived and I couldn't help goggling at the enormous amount of food. I chose the fried chicken with mac & cheese which also came with a large helping of green beans and a big scoop of rice. Both the drumstick and the large thigh were steaming hot, fresh from the fryer, but I couldn't help picking off some of the crispy, well seasoned skin and popping it into my mouth. It was awesome! It was easily some of the best fried chicken I have ever tasted (and I think my own recipe is pretty darn good) and the home-style, Velveeta/margarine macaroni was so tasty that John kept stealing forkfuls from my plate...but not without a fight.

John had his own feast of turkey necks and red beans served over a large pile of rice. The red beans were creamy and heavy with thick slices of delicious andouille sausage. The turkey necks were new to both of us, but we enjoyed the rich, heady flavor and plucked every last morsel from the bones even if he couldn't finish the whole plate. To-go boxes were a must!

Finally, for dessert they had a strawberry cake. It tasted like a simple box cake made with strawberry jello and frosted with a thick, powdered sugar icing. It made me think of family picnics or parties where everything is always good because regardless of whether it is made from scratch, it is still made with love.

It was almost shocking to see the tab come to only a little over $25, especially considering we made a second meal from the leftovers. With such tasty, home-cooked food at those prices, I certainly won't wait so long to come back...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Assigning blame...

I realize I haven't posted in quite a few days. I suppose I could blame it on all sorts of things; work, errands, an irritating, yet lingering bout of depression and self-hate, angst, a sooner-than-expected beginning of allergy season, money troubles, car problems, the rain...

Can I just blame it on Mardi Gras?